'There ought to be a constitutional amendment!'
If things look bad, folks often say that ''there ought to be a law.'' But matters must be in a real fix these days, because the saying in Washington is ''There ought to be a constitutional amendment.''
Nothing is new in proposing alterations to the nation's Constitution. Members of Congress have proffered more than 9,000 amendments since it was adopted nearly two centuries ago.
But rarely, if ever, have so many groups pushed for so many different amendments.
Those who are fed up with big spenders want a constitutional ban on unbalanced budgets. One faction of the anti-abortion movement wants a right-to-life amendment, and still another group is pushing for an amendment to allow prayers in public schools.
Even Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr., who says he usually dislikes the idea of changing the Constitution, has joined the crowd. The Tennessee Republican has concluded reluctantly that Congress is incapable of setting its own salary, so he is sponsoring an amendment to give the US Supreme Court that task.
In each case the proposals grew out of years of pent-up frustration, because the government failed to satisfy a group's special interest. The balanced-budget amendment, for example, has been building since 1975, when states began calling for a constitutional convention on the subject.
The prayer issue got its impetus ''from the general feeling that the courts were pushing people around'' and that ever since the desegregation cases, courts had taken schools out of local hands, says Robert Goldwin, director of constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.
Mr. Goldwin, who is conducting a 10-year study of the Constitution for its coming bicentennial in 1987, says that the amendment mania today is a ''combination of tremendous respect for the power of the Constitution and an insulting ignorance for how it works.''
''There is more respect for the Constitution in this country than in most other countries,'' says Goldwin. Elsewhere, constitutions ''don't play the role in daily lives that our Constitution does,'' he says. ''So when some profound uneasiness or issue of tremendous emotional power surfaces, people in the US look to the Constitution as a way of resolving the difficulty.''
The resolution will not be easy, however. So far this year only the balanced-budget amendment has made any headway. It has won approval in the Senate, but it is stalled in the House and may never reach the floor before the current session ends in October. It is widely believed on Capitol Hill that the proposal is now dead, despite the disclaimers of its supporters.
In fact, the odds are running heavily against any of the proposals becoming part of the Constitution. Of the more than 9,000 amendments brought up on Capitol Hill, only 33 have ever won the necessary two-thirds vote of both Houses.
And as supporters of the failed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) discovered recently, it is also no snap to win the required three-fourths of the states for ratification. Only 26 amendments have been made to the Constitution. Six amendments have passed Congress and died in the states, and a proposal to give the District of Columbia voting representation in Congress appears headed for the same fate. It has won only 10 states since passage in 1978, and needs 28 more.
Other amendments that failed include a proposal during the early 1800s to strip citizenship from any American who accepts a title of nobility from a foreign sovereign.
Just before the Civil War, the newly elected President Abraham Lincoln backed an amendment guaranteeing that Congress would not outlaw slavery. An effort to hold the country together, it failed both in its purpose and in ratification.
It's very hard to ratify an amendment unless there's a powerful consensus in the nation,'' says Goldwin. By that reasoning, almost all of the current constitutional additions would probably fail.
Spokesmen for anti-abortion groups concede that an amendment banning abortion is all but impossible today. However, balanced budget amendment forces hold that they have the consensus needed.
Polls consistently show an 80 percent support level, points out William Shaker, vice-president of the National Tax Limitation Committee. He says that the House will act before the November elections.
The amendment already has lost some of its momentum, as critics attack it as ''government by slogan'' and claim that it would be unworkable. As the debate grows more acrimonious, supporters will have trouble proving they have the ''powerful consensus'' needed, and this proposal may go the way of others now in the national archives.